Author Q&A: Lakeyta M. Bonnette, Pulse of the People

BonnetteToday’s Q&A is with Lakeyta M. Bonnette, author of Pulse of the People: Political Rap Music and Black Politics, which lays a foundation for the study of political rap music and public opinion research and demonstrates ways in which political attitudes asserted in the music have been transformed into direct action and behavior of constituents. In it, Bonnette examines the history of rap music and its relationship to and extension from other cultural and political vehicles within Black America, presenting criteria for identifying the specific subgenre of music that is political rap. She complements the statistics of rap music exposure with lyrical analysis of rap songs that espouse Black Nationalist and Black Feminist attitudes. Touching on a number of critical moments in American racial politics—including the 2008 and 2012 elections and the cases of the Jena 6, Troy Davis, and Trayvon Martin—Pulse of the People makes a compelling case for the influence of rap music in the political arena and greatly expands our understanding of the ways political ideologies and public opinion are formed.

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Penn Press: What ideologies are most affected by exposure to political rap?

Lekeyta Bonnette: In this book the ideologies that were examined were Black Nationalist and Black Feminist ideology. Both of these ideologies were positively impacted by exposure to political rap in comparison to no music or exposure to non-political rap.

Has political rap become its own genre, or does it remain an assumed subgenre of mainstream rap?

Political rap has always been its own subgenre of rap in general, but not in the way as categorized by me in this text. Most people will acknowledge that political rap or message rap exists, but this rap has been more aligned with artists presenting a specific ideology consistently in their music. This book suggests that political rap songs exist from artists that may not be classified as politically oriented and thus the songs should be analyzed separately and not focus solely on the political consistency of the artist.

Why has political rap become particularly resonant in this current political climate?

With the political and social issues that are occurring globally we are seeing more and more marginalized communities utilize this cultural form to assert their ideas, grievances and issues. This is occurring because of the popularity of the genre.

How does rap establish a sense of community?

Rap establishes a sense of community by discussing topics that impact certain demographic characteristics of people regardless of the region in which they live. For instance, in most urban and primarily minority communities, police harassment and racial profiling are prominent issues. If a rapper from one region discusses this issue in a song, minorities in other regions can relate to what that rapper is saying, even if that rapper is not a part of his or her direct geographical community, based on the experiences that have occurred or been discussed in the geographical community of the listener. Rap is able to connect others around issues that are experienced and not discussed within mainstream society.

With the 2016 presidential election around the corner, how can political rap become a legitimate mobilizing agent for young voters?

Political rap can work in the same way it has in previous presidential elections by candidates: voter registration focused organizations or drives and artists. In reference to political candidates, rap can be used to highlight issues of interest to candidates, used as a symbolic tool to connect the candidate to younger and minority voters, and create voter mobilization and registration drives to increase the number of young voters. By organizations and artists rap can be used to bring attention to an issue that needs to be addressed but is not a part of the political platform of candidates, and to endorse candidates and advocate for candidates’ platforms at concerts and other events.

Do you envision the hip-hop community becoming more or less culturally relevant in the coming election seasons?

I envision the hip-hop community becoming more culturally relevant. As Michael Steele observed when he was chairman of the Republican National Committee, in order to connect with some youth voters, hip-hop must be acknowledged. Hip-hop is a cultural form that if accepted and included could signal to young voters that a given politician may be aware of and could possibly be interested in representing their interests. We also saw the utilization of this tactic by Marco Rubio, another republican, when he acknowledged his love for Tupac as a symbol to connect with youth culture. However, the difficult part will be the choice of the artists that are recognized by politicians. To choose good artists, they will actually need to be more aware of who are crowd favorites and have occasionally presented positive messages. The support of rap artists could also be damaging to a politician and potentially used against that politician.

But, these last couple of years have shown that the hip-hop community is becoming more politically engaged and responding to political and social issues without the help or support of older leaders or politicians. Observing this, politicians should be more aware of issues these communities are supportive of, to ensure they can relate to this segment of the population. Hip-hop has expanded and has the potential to be more of a political force.

How has the image of the female rapper changed over the last decade?

First, there is no one particular image of a female rapper or femcee. Similar to not classifying male rappers you also cannot classify femcees as they represent a heterogonous group of artists. However, for the sake argument, one may be able to label the dominant images of mainstream rap femcees, such as artists like Nicki Minaj, Missy Elliot, Eve, Lil Kim, Queen Latifah, M.C. Lyte, and Salt-N-Pepa, to name a few. When observing these artists, there are differences that exist between those that were popular 10 or 20 years ago and artists that are popular now. However, I still contend that there is no one image for a femcee as, their styles will vary. Most arguments are made that artists like Nicki Minaj are hypersexualized and different from an artist such as Missy Elliot, who for the majority of her career did not wear tight-fitting clothing or emphasize her physical dimensions. Still, this argument cannot be made to hold consistent because when Missy Elliot was popular with her non-sexualized image, Lil Kim and Foxxy Brown were popular with a more sexualized image. Currently, while Nicki Minaj is one of the most popular femcees and has a sexualized image, there are other femcees whose images are not sexualized, such as Jean Grae and Tiye Phoenix. Thus, there is no observable change in the image of the female rapper as these images vary by the rapper and throughout decades. There is no one consistent look that was more popular than another for female rap artists.

Has Black feminism benefited or suffered from this transforming image?

The images of femcees have benefited Black feminism, whether that image is sexualized or not. For one thing, the sexualized image allows for the embracing of a body that is seen as deviant and hypersexual. It gives Black women some autonomy by embracing their bodies and selves. No song is more evident of this than the highly controversial “Anaconda” by Nicki Minaj. Similar to pop artists such as Iggy Azalea and Jennifer Lopez on “Booty” and Meghan Trainor on “All about that Bass,” Minaj emphasizes love for the curvier full body woman and detracts from the “acceptable” images of the thin, less curvy, model image that is the standard. Additionally, the non-sexualized image furthers Black feminism by placing emphasis on the talent of the artist rather than her body, by demonstrating that it is not the sexiness of an artist or woman that leads to her success but her talent, skills and intelligence.

Has the emphasis on hyper-masculinity in rap increased or decreased over time?

Hyper-masculinity is an element of American culture that is reflected in hip-hop culture. Hyper-masculinity has maintained a stay within the culture as it is within larger American society. I do not think it has increased or decreased over time. Instead we have seen a decrease in the type of rap that is visible to mainstream society over time and this reflects in more hyper-masculine rap.

Can rap ever truly be accepted by mainstream culture without sanitizing its content?

Yes, rap has been accepted by mainstream culture and has not sanitized its content. One of the most appealing factors of rap music is its ability to maintain authenticity. Rap has throughout its decades of existence been able to use changes in society and in what is popular to continue to tell the story of those that are marginalized from dominant society. The most exceptional part about rap today is that it is no longer a music genre where it is speaking only to those that are a part of the community where it was created or resides. Instead, rap has taken residence in many homes outside of urban communities, in suburbia, and throughout the world.

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Lakeyta M. Bonnette teaches political science at Georgia State University-Atlanta. Pulse of the People: Political Rap Music and Black Politics is available now.

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